I am slumped in a Rover estate car in west London, going nowhere. My grip on the steering wheel is so tight that my knuckles are draining of blood as I look at the road in front of me and click on the indicator. I jerk the car into motion. It stalls yet again. I get it going, only to judder into third gear instead of first.
The engine snarls. So do I. It's safe to say that half-way through my driving test things are not proceeding as planned.
The need to clamp down on dangerous driving is greater than ever. In late December the Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, announced that planned legislation could see dangerous drivers face a maximum penalty of five years in prison instead of the present two. "Dangerous driving contributes to the seven deaths that occur on British roads every day," Straw said. "It is vital that the Government remains committed to continuing to tackle the menace of dangerous driving."
Against this backdrop, a motoring charity, the Institute of Advanced Motoring (IAM), based in Chiswick, London provides lessons and examinations for older drivers. I had decided to give my skills a polish by retaking my driving test in the form of a "special assessment" – a driving-test-like examination that scrutinises people's driving styles in the hope that they can kill their bad habits instead of pedestrians.
Peter Rodger, sitting alongside me, is the IAM's chief examiner and has ample experience of driving safely in challenging conditions in his former role as a police officer. As the car stalls, he tells me to pause for a moment – time that I wholeheartedly employ to keep swearing in extravagant ways: "Damn you and all your kin," I say, to the world in general.
My self-scrutiny had begun earlier that day. I had turned up at the IAM's Chiswick base rather scared about weather reports of impending snow – which thankfully didn't materialise. I made small talk with the IAM's staff about the recently crowned Formula One champion, Jenson Button, thinking this might be on-message. They had seemed strangely uninterested.
Cursing myself for forgetting my tanned sheepskin driving gloves, I had settled in behind the wheel. Propelling the car forward by several metres, I had stalled for the first time and in frustration had inanely pumped the clutch and brake, like a seven-year-old testing a pedalo. It didn't help.
Receiving the briefest of advice from Rodger, I edged the vehicle out into the side streets of Chiswick, where I proceeded to pull off a series of complex manoeuvres such as driving over the kerb, an 11-point-turn, complex cursing and forgetting to check my mirrors. Eventually, Rodger tells me to pull over so he can deliver his assessment. I'm not full of hope.
"If we were running through the Driving Standards Agency test you would have failed," he says, rather kindly. "For starters, you weren't looking at your mirror enough – though that is a common fault. Most people are quite good at doing it when they are steering, but you mustn't forget to do it when you are slowing down or speeding up. It's a big problem in cycling cities like London or Bristol."
He goes on to tell me what specifically I would have failed my driving test for: putting my wheel over the kerb (as I am unused to the size of the car); throwing it into the wrong gear and stalling repeatedly (mainly due to my unfamiliarity with manual transmission); and clutch control in general (much rolling back during hill-starts). "My advice would be to practice with a manual gear-change in a quiet area, until you can do it without thinking," he advises.
My performance seems to be at odds with recent research from Continental Tyres, which claims that those who pass their driving tests second time around are the safest drivers. (I passed in 1997 with 12 minor faults and haven't driven with manual gears in 12 years).
We retreat to the IAM HQ on the Chiswick High Road and Rodger answers a few more of my questions. He tells me – rather paradoxically considering his mission – that it is now a safer time than ever to be British motorist. The Department for Transport's most recent figures show that in 2008 there were a total of 230,905 reported casualties on Britain's roads, of all severities – 7 per cent lower than in 2007. However Rodger says there are plenty of other reasons to be vigilant. "There is a lot more traffic than there used to be," he says. "This produces other issues: for starters the amount of motorcycling in London has gone through the roof, especially because of the concessions given to them by areas like London's Congestion Charge Zone. That means we need to be more aware of what we're doing than ever."
The instructor adds that because of advances in driving technology – automatic transmission, cruise control – we all have greater opportunity to survey what is happening outside our vehicles and need to alter our style of driving accordingly.
He points out that I tend to focus on the area several metres in front of the bonnet (my eyesight isn't great), rather than 100 metres up the road – which is where someone travelling at a certain pace gains useful information.
Anyone in doubt about their skills should give the IAM a call. "I don't want to point the finger too much," he says. "But the earlier you can catch people's problems the easier it is to nip them in the bud. Then we can get them into good habits and turn them into a measured, careful driver. Our courses aren't designed to catch people out. They are just there to give you the confidence to learn independently, as your driving matures."
There's no need to ask whether my driving could do with a little polishing. Lacking in practice, and suitably chastised, I make my way home using the most suitable method of transport: the bus.
For more information on advanced motoring, go to iam.org.ukReuse content